Sequestered within their sturdy black shells, succulent mussels, the prize inside, present a dramatic appearance that belies their easy deliciousness. There’s almost no effort to preparing them: usually they come already cleaned by the fish vendor, so need only a dunk in cool water just before cooking to determine that their shells remain closed in the water, indicating that they’re still alive and edible.
The quick tomato sauce is adapted from a long line of previous adaptations with an equally long list of variations as to herbs, spices, wine or not, onion or not, lemon zest or not, dating back to the 1930s when people pretty much worldwide had finally taken to embracing tomatoes as a daily food and tomato canneries were a thriving industry. The sauce, based on canned tomatoes, goes with so many flavors and taste combinations, I recommend keeping some, or its quick-to-put-together ingredients, on hand for when an extra flourish is unexpectedly wanted.
Serves 2 to 3
Quick Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon chili flakes
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste.
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped but not minced
2 cups canned whole or crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, chopped if whole, with juies
Zest of 1 medium organic lemon
1 1/2 pounds live mussels
1 1/2 cups Quick Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves, for serving
- To make the tomato sauce, stir together the olive oil, chili flakes, salt, and garlic in a large pan over medium-high heat. Saute briefly, just until the garlic wilts, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer, stirring a few times, and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the zest and add more salt if desired. Use right away, or cool and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days; reheat before using. Makes about 2 cups.
- Place a large cast iron skillet on a cold grill or oven rack. Cover the grill or close the oven, turn the heat on as high as it will go, and let it heat for 30 minutes, until very hot.
- When ready to cook the mussels, place them in a large bowl and fill it with cold tap water. A few at a time, lift out the mussels and transfer them to a colander, discarding any that are open.
- Carefully add the selected mussels in the colander to the skillet. Cover the grill or close the oven and cook for 2 minutes. Check the mussels; if the shells are not open, cook for 1 minute more.
- Pour the tomato sauce over the mussels, sprinkle the parsley across the top, and serve right from the skillet. (Take care; the skillet is very hot!).